The stage is plain and simple—a chair with some ladders and rafters—and the actors are clearly visible from the seats. Completely dismissing the fourth wall, they walk through the audience in costume to greet friends, they joke loudly to each other backstage, and when director Jenny Bennett shows up, one theatrically bellows, “There is my directress!” My first impression of the Classical Theater of Harlem’s new production of Henry V was one of unpretentious, self-conscious perfection. But sloppiness that first seemed premeditated and fitting became mere slop, and I, in turn, became disenchanted.
I was duped by the brilliance of the communal feel: the informality of it all was almost serendipitously ideal for this play. Henry V follows a series of histories, the plots of which would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. (As the chorus notes, “oft our stage hath shown” the future events of Henry VI.) So, just as the patrons of the Globe would know King Henry’s background as the boyish Hal, the Shabazz Center’s audience spots a series of its own familiar faces onstage. This smartly considered self-awareness is likewise apparent in the minimal set design: it is Shakespeare’s own words that underline the power of theatrical insinuation. As the play opens, the chorus admits the limitations of theater and asks its audience, “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them … For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.”
By the end of the first scene, however, the production’s enormous potential is deflated by abysmal performances, as Ms. Bennett’s players, seeming to treat the text as archaic and thus unworthy of close interpretation—choose to plow through the dialogue in lieu of comprehending it. They rattle off their lines like a hungry worshipper rushing the Yom Kippur service, and the pacing is so overwhelming that even if the audience could follow what is going on, they wouldn’t. To make up for this, many opt to illustrate the general idea of what they are saying with exaggerated and obvious gestures, blatantly ignoring Hamlet’s directorial advice not to “saw the air too much with your hand.” Particularly heinous, Carine Montbertrand—whose series of minor roles guarantees that the stage is never rid of her—screeches in such grating and unrelenting tones that we thank Ms. Bennett for trimming down Henry to a charitable ninety minutes.
Still, it should be mentioned that Ty Jones, playing the eponymous role, proves a welcome exception. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom argues that the play is ironic not patriotic, as the battle at its center is nothing more than “an imperialist land grab that did not long survive Henry V’s death.” Jones instills this notion in his performance, and delivers the famous monologue, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” like a football coach revving up his team for the big game. Throughout, he grins and jokes, a newly minted monarch who does not realize the implications of his power, and his love scenes with the French princess Catherine are appropriately awkward and arrogant. He evokes the Errol Flynn of The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood, an amused leader with the air of a swashbuckler. Behind his swagger, we can see glimpses of Prince Hal, and it is as if Jones has gone through the transformation of prince to king without appearing in the earlier plays.
And yet, even a strong lead cannot save this sinking ship. After the curtain call, Ty Jones charmingly peeked his head back onstage and cried, “All right, let’s go have a drink!” Unfortunately, he couldn’t have had a better idea.